Taiwan in a Chinese overture

Andrew Mueller
8 May 2005

The ostentatious display of friendship between the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the leaders of Taiwan’s two main opposition parties – first the Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Lien Chan, swiftly followed by James Soong, head of the People First Party might seem, at first glance, like a development which should bring the publics of both China and Taiwan out dancing in the streets. Red carpets, flowery professions of goodwill, happy, smiling photo-calls and even that Chinese offer of a gift of two giant pandas – it seemed the perfect start to a reconciliation between parties that were implacable enemies for nearly sixty years. Perhaps Hu Jintao and Lien Chan in particular might begin to clear shelf space for a Nobel peace prize.

In Taiwan, however, the mood was not one of universal joy. In fact before the visit had even begun the KMT delegates were denounced there as traitors and collaborators and they had to run the gauntlet of a riot to reach their plane. Outside Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek airport a crowd several thousand strong, armed with eggs, bottles, fireworks, rocks, slingshots and various improvised walloping instruments engaged 3,500 police and soldiers in a punch-up that left nine people in hospital. Rarely can putative peacemakers have been sent on their way with such a display of violence and chorus of abuse.

Also in openDemocracy about Taiwan:

Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, “Taiwan’s dual election: democracy and national identity” (March 2004)

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I wasn’t at the airport for the fracas, but like most people in Taipei I saw it live on television, reported in the same tones of jabbering excitement used at the bigger baseball fixtures. I was in the office of Lee Shang-ren, director of policy research for the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), one of the parties which organised the protest. Like every other Taiwanese I have met in recent weeks, Lee was not against peace with China (the alternative, as everyone in Taiwan knows, would be the end of the Taiwan they love), but he was deeply suspicious of China’s reasons for welcoming the KMT delegation, and of the KMT’s motives for making the trip.

The CCP and KMT were the opposing sides in the Chinese civil war of 1926-49 and modern Taiwan began when the KMT, under General Chiang Kai-shek, retreated there in 1949 along with a couple of million fellow-travellers. Like a losing player in a game of Risk clinging grimly to his sole remaining territory while plotting an unlikely resurgence, Taiwan kept the official name Republic of China and continued to claim sole legitimate authority over all the territory of what became the People’s Republic. (The Taiwanese constitution still contains clauses relating to local government in Mongolia and Tibet.)

Chiang Kai-shek oversaw a repressive and occasionally brutal military dictatorship until his death in 1975, after which the top job passed to his son, Chiang Ching-kuo. Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law in 1987 and Taiwan made an impressively smooth transition to democracy – at the expense, eventually, of the KMT’s hegemony. In 2000 Taiwan elected its first non-KMT president, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and narrowly re-elected him in 2004, following a curious assassination attempt (KMT legislators insist the shooting was a hoax and Lien Chan, KMT chairman, refuses to address Chen Shui-bian as “President”).

This is why Lee Shang-ren and many other Taiwanese are less than overjoyed at the apparent rapprochement between the CCP and KMT. The suspicion is that this was a reckless last throw by a KMT that fears its time as Taiwan’s natural party of government may be up and knows its long-standing goal of reunifying Taiwan and China is of dwindling interest to an increasingly confident and nationalistic Taiwanese population.

Many Taiwanese are also worried that Beijing’s sudden embrace of the KMT is a divide-and-conquer tactic. One who sees it that way is Joseph Wu, chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, the branch of Taiwan’s government that handles relations with China, who told me of his fear that the appearance of peace between the CCP and the KMT could be mistaken by the international community for peace between China and Taiwan.

Peace is what everyone in Taiwan wants, but also what almost nobody in Taiwan expects. A common view here is that the next two or three years should be steady enough, barring occasional regional upsets like China’s recent “anti-secession” bill (threatening Taiwan with war if it ever formally declares independence) and last month’s orchestrated Chinese protests against Japan. The key date, many believe, is 2008: before then Beijing will do nothing that might jeopardise its Olympics, but when Taiwanese look beyond the closing ceremony they start to get nervous.

The logical solution appears to be that China should just let bygones be bygones, sign a treaty with Taiwan and allow the people there to do as they like. This could certainly benefit Beijing: even in the present awkward circumstances Taiwan has $70 billion invested in China. But unless there is a revolution inside the People’s Republic, that simply won’t happen, for reasons both powerful and numerous. China sees settling the Taiwan issue on its own terms as the key to reducing American and Japanese influence in the region. It has its eye on the Chunxiao oilfields beneath the Diaoyutai islands (“Senkaku” for Japan), which are claimed by Taiwan, China and Japan. The Chinese armed forces need the Taiwan issue to justify their bulging budgets, and the Beijing government needs the Taiwan issue so that if it faces domestic strife it can always create a galvanising nationalist distraction.

In Taiwan right now the two things that people fear most, in no particular order, are: 1) a strong, confident China, and 2) a weak, disintegrating China.

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